Mughal-era opulent drama on show at London theater

Since January this year, the National’s Lyttelton Theatre stage has been transformed into lavish and opulent sets. (Photo courtesy: National Theater)

Whilst the story of the 17th century Mughal Prince Dara may not be as recognizable as the iconic love story that inspired the Taj Mahal, to those familiar with it, it is less a story about two disputing brothers and more a story about what India and Pakistan have since become. The tale is now being showcased for a wider audience at London’s National Theatre and highlights a centuries’ old clash of ideology that was fought between Islam’s Sufi and puritanical adherents.

Since January this year, the National’s Lyttelton Theatre stage has been transformed into lavish and opulent sets that mimic the decadence of the Mughal Empire as it showcases the Pakistani production, “Dara.”

"1659. Mughal India. The imperial court, a place of opulence and excess; music, drugs, eunuchs and harems. Two brothers, whose mother’s death inspired the Taj Mahal, are heirs to this Muslim empire. Now they fight ferociously for succession," reads the theater's website in description of the play which was originally written by Shahid Nadeem and performed by the famous Ajoka theatre company of Pakistan.



It has now been adapted by Tanya Ronder and Nadia Fall for the National Theatre which, unlike the Pakistani version, marks a departure from an all singing and all dancing show.

Adapting the play for a Western audience

In the program for the National Theatre play, both the director and writer discuss their experiences of adapting the story for Western audiences. For Tanya Ronder, starting from a position of unfamiliarity was useful as a “lot of our audience will also be coming in knowing little about South Asian history, the Mughal Empire or Islam.

“Ajoka’s production was bold, beautifully exuberant, and colorful with music and dance central to the show, but we needed more context, more drama as we knew it, to give us more knowledge and less reason to detach from the tale, viewing it as another time another place. There was so much rich material discovered through the research, and we realized that, for a British audience, used to more psychological and emotionally rounded drama, we could afford to put these characters in scenes together.”



The story itself is fascinating. The victorious Aurangzeb puts his older brother on trial for treason after winning a protracted conflict against him. It is the ideological conflict between the brothers, that forms the pivot of the story. Dara is a Sufi poet and scholar. His rival, Aurangzeb, is a power-hungry puritanical adherent of Islam.

Determined to destroy his brother’s popularity amongst the masses and seeking religious justification for his death, Prince Aurangzeb conspires to put him on trial not just for treason but for apostasy too. He is threatened by his brother’s love for the mystical traditions of India, his syncretic acceptance of other faiths and his unorthodox Sufi leanings.

Questions of faith

What follows is a very public trial conducted in a religious Shariah court that attempts to prove that Dara is a threat to the faith itself. With the outcome of the trial a foregone conclusion, Dara opts to defend himself and puts up a spirited defense of his version of the faith, his ideals and his vision of a multi-faith India.



The sibling rivalry between Dara and Aurangzeb is successfully captured as the play moves forward and backwards to both their teenage years and adulthood. The dramatic marble arches evoke the architecture of the Mughal Empire, transporting audiences to a period of decadence and beauty. It’s the combination of the sliding screens and attention to detail in the historic dresses that evokes a romantic mood that is befitting of the Mughal period.

Amidst such visual splendor, the play deals with a struggle against religious intransigence. All this comes to the fore in the lengthy courtroom scene where Dara is being tried for apostasy. According to the Telegraph’s Laura Barnett, “Zubin Varla is outstanding as Dara, whose love of poetry and music, and respect for all religions (he was a follower of Sufism) made him popular among his people - and hated by Aurangzeb and the mullahs...Varla is full of quiet dignity as the gentle mystic pleading for tolerance in the stony face of fundamentalism.”



Of course, Dara loses and is promptly executed by Aurangzeb. The play ends with a scene 50 years in the future that shows a paranoid Aurangzeb who deeply regrets his actions in the name of religion.

The clash of ideology still reverberates today. As the debate about whether Islam is compatible with the West or not continues to play out in today’s rolling news, this play reminds us that such debates and discussion have been a central part of the Islamic discourse for centuries and have a rich tradition of their own.

The play will run at the Lyttelton Theatre until April 4, 2015.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44